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Understanding Eating Disorders

by Vicki Harvey


magine a world where an ordinary daily activity, performed three times daily, is to blow up purple balloons. Blowing up these balloons is very pleasurable, but it's also a necessity to live. Everybody does it, looks forward to it, and has been doing it all their lives. Everybody but you. You used to be like everyone else. But in the past couple of years, you feel strange about purple balloons. You don't know how many is enough. Furthermore, you are terrified of them. You think if you blow up even one balloon you may become horribly ugly or fat. Or the balloons might even poison you. Everyone will notice, and your life will be ruined.

You look at others and think, They need balloons, but Iím different. Since balloons are potentially dangerous, Iíll blow up as few as possible. Then Iíll be OK.

The problem is, you can never get your balloon blowing regulated normally. Some days you hardly blow at all; other days you blow so many you are sick and disgusted with yourself. Soon this mess with the balloons is all you can think about. It is consuming your waking hours. Should I or shouldnít I? Is it good, or bad? Am I ugly, or pretty? You long to be free. You hardly know yourself any longer. You have no feeling, no life inside. You have nothing to look forward to when you wake up. Just the torment and the mocking of purple balloons.

This preposterous fantasy is an attempt to help you enter the hellish world of eating disorders. People suffering from bulimia (repeated binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting or purging) and anorexia (self starvation) struggle with severe problems of body image, balanced eating, discipline and self loathing. People suffering from anorexia have deliberately restricted their food intake to the point that they are at least 15 percent below ideal body weight.

Both anorexia and bulimia primarily inflict teenage girls and young women, although the incidence of occurrence among young men is on the rise. The problem has reached epidemic proportions in our society. There are more than five million diagnosable anorexics and bulimics in the United States. One percent of teenage girls in the U.S. develop anorexia and at least one thousand die each year. Up to 5 percent of college women in the U.S. are bulimic. In addition to people actually suffering from anorexia and bulimia, another 20 million Americans demonstrate eating-disordered thinking that could quickly switch to an active disorder.

In addition to people actually suffering
from anorexia and bulimia, another
20 million Americans demonstrate eating-
disordered thinking that could
quickly switch to an active disorder.

The most frightening aspect of this problem is how distorted the personís thinking is about his or her body and the impact of even the smallest amount of food upon it. Girls are convinced if they eat more than lettuce, for example, they will gain more weight than they can exercise off. Many teenage girls with eating disorders complain that they are fat, even when others see them as little more than skin and bones.

Jennifer,* for example, is a 17-year-old bulimic. Until a year ago, she was a straight A student, active in the school drama club, track, and student council. She was president of her church youth group and tutored underprivileged children on Saturday mornings. Jennifer is the only child of a physician father and a mother who is CEO of the local chamber of commerce.

About eighteen months ago Jennifer and a good friend, Rachel, began hanging out at each others' homes looking at fashion magazines and comparing their bodies with the models they saw there. About the same time, Jennifer tried out for the cheerleading squad and was not chosen. She was not used to losing and was devastated. Always slender and attractive, Jennifer began to imagine she had not been selected because she was too fat. She began dieting, but quickly decided she was not getting the results she wanted.

Once she tried throwing up after dinner. It felt weird but also instantly cleansing. Her stomach felt flat, and she liked the accompanying empty feeling. She began doing this regularly and soon her entire day was filled with thoughts of how to get enough food for a binge, and then how she could get rid of it without anyone being the wiser. It was not unusual for her to throw up six times a day.

Jennifer's grades began to plunge. She dropped out of most of her activities because they interfered with her schedule for bingeing and purging. Finally, a school counselor contacted Jennifer's mom who confronted Jennifer. At first she denied anything was wrong. But when her mom persisted, Jennifer admitted she was feeling out of control with her obsession. She agreed to go for counseling and began to see a physician for the problem.

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Richard (Dick) Innes unless otherwise stated.